Why do the nations so furiously rage together Why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Even from my youth, that forceful solo Bass air from the midst of G F Handel’s Messiah is seared into the musical memory chambers of my brain, including the frantic energy of the orchestra with its stirring lead-in.
Yet it has never made its way to become one of the memes of the Holiday season – as this year in particular, I think it should.
From the beginning of December, the Advent hymns sung in church, and the Christmas holiday choral music of extensive holiday concerts – this year especially, I have been struck by the ancient idea that when the Almighty chose to ‘save the world,’ he did so by way of an infant born to a lowly Galilean girl, and in a place where there was “no room” for Mary & Joseph, except in a back yard. The first ‘visitors’ were ‘lowly shepherds’ – and only after a short time did three Kings on camels appear from somewhere in “the East.”
This sacred narrative ostensibly was of the arrival of a “long-awaited Prince of Peace.”
And so, the narrative memes of Christmas represent innocence, poverty, and the manifestation of the ‘holy vulnerability’ of the humble. Yet in the background is the maniacal King Herod, who necessitates Joseph’s fleeing to Egypt with his young wife, the child, and a donkey – a very long desert walk of many days. In the meantime, the narrative tells us Herod had 200 children slaughtered in his attempt to destroy the usurper child. (In the Christian liturgical calendar, The Feast of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, the ‘first Christian martyrs,’ takes place only three days after Christmas Day.) Even Christmas has, from its beginning, a very dark side.
And all this on the same soil that today suffers the ‘vain’ slaughter, especially of children and women. The “furious rage” of each side trumps even the villainous “slaughter of innocents.”[1]
And so pens the ancient author of the second Psalm as to what happens when there is no respect for any higher order.
My pacifist heritage
These past months, I have developed an increased respect for my pacifist parents and the rich heritage they passed on to me. My father was early very active in the World Peace (pacifist) movement within the Methodist Church of that time (the 1930s). And my mother came from the same background, well before they met and married (1939). Being a pacifist may look easy – it’s not. Going to war can be much easier. All you have to do is access your primal anger, and with your basal ganglia (the ‘lizard brain’), the rest comes ‘naturally.’
And I know they each sang Handel’s Messiah because I inherited the leather-bound vocal scores of each, my mother’s, with her maiden name.
Our country is suffering a parallel division. The older folks remember the promise that came with the establishment of the nation Israel (1948), but many of our young see instead through the eyes of the oppressor and the oppressed. And both have missed the leadership of our own country, which used to have that gift of conjunctio oppositorum, managing the conjunction of opposites, which is the lifeblood of a democracy.
And so to the Birthday of the Prince of Peace – God’s gift to the world.
I’m not a ‘right to life’ aficionado. That’s become a political phenomenon, with the luxury of specific good and evil – winners and losers. Way too easy and comfortable! I want to be a warrior-for-real-life person.[2] Much the opposite of people with easy ideological answers.
So what is this Christmas?
So what is Christmas in a world so much at war, a world of intense conflict and murdered children? And who is this Christ Child (that the powers that be, aka King Herod, wanted to kill)? – and eventually succeed. What sense can we make of it? What can we do? Where can we stand? What can it all mean?
My first answer is to stand in the middle. Perhaps with one leg in each warring camp (a specific physiological vulnerability!). For some, it can be that dead or liminal space between what we have lost or left behind and (maybe hopefully) what is yet to come. A barren, inhospitable desert before any promised land. Or perhaps a threshold or vestibule, an entryway to a new reality – a ‘third thing’ that gathers all things together (which some folks call “The Kingdom.”)
Nonetheless, it’s a place of promise, vulnerability, and the hope of countless generations – including our own.
I commend it to you.
Pay Attention
[1] The root meaning of the word War is ‘to confuse, to perplex, to bring into confusion’ (Wikipedia). And there must be ‘rules’ – which in our day have been weakened and easily ignored. The Israel/Hamas conflict is not a war but is based, especially in the repeated language of the Israeli leadership, on “total destruction.” (Perhaps they inherited that from the similar MO of the German Nazis in the Holocaust – who cared not a whit for any ‘rules’ about innocent parties.) In contrast, it seems to me the MO of Hamas is rather retributive anger (rage), which can initially have the same energy and similar tactics but is not the same thing. Any “peace process” must synchronize these two non-synchronous origins of conflict with an elusive ‘third thing.’ At the moment, all they have in common is the land itself (which we sometimes enigmatically still call “the Holy Land.”)
I know; I’m a marriage counselor.
[2] Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek (one of my favorite reads), at one point asks his young protégé, Basil, “Why do children die?… Why does anybody die?” The latter responds, ”I don’t know.” To which Zorba angrily answers,” Then what’s the use of all your damn books?” Basil responds, “They tell me – about the agony of people who can’t answer questions like yours.” The true pacifist fully embodies that agony.
Or, another Zorba quote: “Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble” [Sort of maybe like a real marriage.]